Korg’s latest mini synth line-up looks to improve on it’s popular Monotron series with a focused set of three analogue synths. Alex Holmes cranks up the resonance and gets ready to tweak some dials…
Price £119.99 each (optional power adaptor approx £10)
It seems you can’t even blink these days without another company announcing its latest analogue hardware synth. Manufacturers seem to have cottoned on to the fact that people no longer want a piece of complex digital kit whose sounds can be matched and bettered on a computer soft synth with a more fluid interface. However, there’s a huge demand for simple, tactile controls, and big sounding, analogue oscillators and filters.
Several years ago, Korg took this to the extreme, with the Monotron, possibly the worlds cheapest and smallest analogue mini synth, which had an extremely limited feature set, but an amazing tone for such a small piece of kit. This was later followed up with the dual oscillators of the Monotron Duo, the crazy effects maestro of the Monotron Delay, and the more complex beats and bass of the Monotribe. As much as you could waste hours of fun twiddling knobs on the Monotrons, in the end the fiddly keyboard, noisy output, and lack of MIDI was just too much of a hinderance for many looking to add them into their workflow.
However, the world was still fascinated by these mini synths, and many tech-savvy enthusiasts grabbed their soldering irons to make mods and adjustments. A few years on, and Korg is back with its latest mini masterpieces, the Volcas.
Stay in Sync
Available in three distinct flavours, the Volca Beats, Volca Bass, and Volca Keys add MIDI in, built-in sequencers, extended sound design capabilities, and an improved stereo output port, yet retain the low price point, and battery-powered cute factor of the originals.
The three units have been designed to compliment each other, and you can chain them together using the mini-jack Sync In and Sync Out sockets so that the internal sequencers are triggered in tandem. As they all feature small built-in speakers, you could in fact perform an acid house busking set (albeit a rather quiet one), without the need for external power. You would however need plenty of batteries as they take 6AAs each for around 10 hours of operation. There’s also the option of using the Korg SyncKontrol app to drive the devices, which adds swing and the potential for wireless MIDI, although truth be told we had problems getting this to work.
All three units are fairly lightweight and plastic, but are larger than the original Monotrons, with an improved ribbon strip making playing notes and chords a much more enjoyable and accurate proposition. The keys on the ribbon also double as input for the step sequencers, and offer access to extended functions by way of a FUNC button. Although most of the knobs are fairly small, there’s just about enough space to allow easy movement, and several of the most important functions such as the Cutoff on the Volca Bass have larger dials for easy tweaking and performance. Another nifty feature is self tuning on the Bass and Keys to help avoid oscillator drift, but sadly there’s no audio input like on the previous Monotrons, so you can’t feed the drums from the Beats into the Bass for further filtering.
So let’s look at each Volca in a little more depth. First we have the Volca Beats, a 6 voice analogue drum machine (kick, snare, hi tom, low tom, closed hat, open hat), with 4 additional PCM samples (clave, agogo, clap, cymbal). You have basic controls for each sound, such as pitch and decay, along with click level for the kick and an overall pitch for the sampled hits. This allows just about enough manipulation to help go from a booming 808 style bass kick and pitched down trap clap sound, to a tighter, pitched up techno kick and resonant snare.
The weighty kick itself is definitely the highlight, although the pitch range is rather safe, going from around 40 to 70 Hz, so you can’t do any crazy pitch dives. If we’re honest, we weren’t all that keen on the snare, and the PCM sounds are fairly crunchy and lo-fi sounding, but this can be made much more interesting with the Stutter function. On the left there are two larger knobs for time and depth, which apply a MIDI delay effect either to individual sounds or globally to the whole beat, creating minimal techno style fast echoes, or other rhythmic effects.
To get the most out of the unit however, you’ll want to start laying down some grooves. The sequencer has 8 memory locations for different 1 bar beats, which, with a little practice, can be instantly switched between to build up a live arrangement. You can either play the parts in live, where each strike is quantised to the nearest division, or switch to Step mode to input in a traditional step-sequence manner. With all the parts playing, you can then use the Mute button to switch each sound on and off, whilst performing sound manipulations with the knobs.
Korg has managed to squeeze in some nifty sequencer tricks such as Active Step mode, which lets you select steps to be bypassed, thus instantly creating different grooves and ideas. There’s also a similar mode called Step Jump that essentially does the same thing but in real-time as keys are held down. This means you could hold the steps where a kick and snare are triggered for a fast stuttering drum roll that alternates between the two, although performing this in time is quite tricky.
The final ace up the sleeve is Motion Recording, which lets you record movements of the PCM pitch knob, and the stutter effect controls to help build up more interesting patterns. Unfortunately, the kick, toms, and snare pitch and other analogue controls can’t be controlled by MIDI, and as such most of the sound design controls aren’t saved along with the patterns in the memory locations. Also, the unit doesn’t respond to velocity, and there’s no option for accents in the sequencer, although you could potentially automate the individual part volume via your DAW if you so desired.
Time for Techno
Next up is the Volca Bass, a synth that bares a striking resemblance to ye olde 303, and a machine dying to be used for squealing acid techno lines. The Bass is, to our ears, the best sounding of the three, with 3 fat oscillators that can be individually sequenced and switched between Saw and Square waves, or stacked up for thick sounding resonance, plus a smooth analogue filter based on the MiniKorg 700s.
There are controls for keyboard octave, peak, cutoff, LFO rate and intensity, envelope attack and decay/release, filter envelope amount, and individual tuning for each oscillator. You can move up or down in fine steps over a semi tone to create warm, detuned sounds, or in increments up to an octave to create chords and taller, stacked basses. Through clever use of the FUNC button and the ribbon keys, you have access to further editing that allows you to assign the LFO to amp, pitch, and/or filter, select from two LFO shapes, change the oscillator waves, toggle the sustain portion of the envelope, detach the envelope from the amp section, and choose whether you want the oscillators stacked or separate. Although you can’t balance the individual volumes of each oscillator, you can turn them on and off, which comes in handy if you’ve got three separate sequencer lines running.
Speaking of which, the sequencer section follows a similar layout to the Volca Beats, with the same Active Step function, but not the Step Jump. Instead, you have ability to toggle a slide for each step, an essential feature for re-creating those classic 303 style lines, and a step input mode for programming in patterns. As we mentioned earlier, the keyboard is much easier to play than on the Monotrons, with a very subtle portamento switched on as default (although you can switch this off via MIDI), and we would be happy to use this on stage.
However, if you’re not so confident, then you can easily plug in a MIDI keyboard to make things easier, to extend the octave range, and to add control over velocity.
We love the sound of this little synth, especially when you crank the resonance, stack up the oscillators to get some overdrive and start getting hands on using the silky smooth filter. The only downer is the lack of Motion Record, as found on the other Volcas, and the fact that all the oscillators share the same envelope.
Strike a Chord
The final member of the gang, Volca Keys, is arguably the most exciting and intriguing, as it offers up a three voice analogue capable of three voice polyphony. At this price range, that’s pretty unheard of! Like the Bass, you have a peak filter, LFO (but with an extra waveform, taking the total up to 3), and an Envelope Generator. The envelope has a proper sustain dial this time, allowing for more finesse when shaping sounds, although we found the attack and release times to be a little too short for creating longer pads.
The most important dial sits on the left and controls the voice mode. You can choose from POLY for playing three note chords, UNISON for thick sounds, OCTAVE for stacked oscillators, FIFTH for a basic chord, UNISON RING for metallic ring mod sounds, and POLY RING for more controlled, dissonant tones. There’s also a detune knob, full portamento control, and an analogue delay section. This is similar to the one found on the Monotron Delay, although we were disappointed to find that the feedback control is much more conservative than that self-oscillating monster. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent addition that can be used to add depth to any sound, and can also be sync’d to tempo.
With the LFO adding some subtle pitch modulation, and the delay switched on, you get a beautiful shimmering chorus effect that’s great for Boards of Canada style, lo-fi pads. Alongside the aforementioned Active Step function, the step sequencer on the Keys has a few extra tricks including a built in metronome, the ability to run at half and quarter speed to allow for 4 bar phrases, and a flux mode that lets you input unquantised keyboard phrases. You also have Motion Record on all of the controls, which opens up some amazing creative possibilities for adding controlled movement to parts over time. Unlike the Bass, all these dials are also controllable via MIDI, including the cutoff, although the 128-step resolution leads to a noticeable stepping of the filter at high resonance levels. Luckily, Korg has seen fit to include a Motion Smooth function that goes some way to combating this when you’re recording you movements into the sequencer. You’re also slightly limited in that all the oscillators share the same envelope, although this isn’t a problem if you strike clean chords.
Despite some amazing demo videos showing otherwise, it can be a bit tricky to play chords on the ribbon keyboard, so we would probably recommend using a keyboard if you’re looking to perform live.
The Power of Three
So there you have it. Three very different little synths that each have their own pros and cons. If you’re searching for some deep sound design tools, then you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. However, to get a true analogue synth with built in sequencer for this price is a pretty good deal. Korg has listened to its customers and managed to hit the perfect balance of price and features. Are they still just toys?
Well that depends on what you do with them, and we’ll be very interested to see what the wider modding community comes up with once they start pulling these puppies apart. If we were pushed to just buy one then it would be a tough choice between the excellent sound quality of the Bass, or the more flexible polyphony of the keys. Of course, the real magic and fun comes from plugging all three together and just jamming out a mini rave. The only problem is you’ll wish you had another pair of hands!
+ True analogue sounds
+ Built in sequencers add great value for money
+ Fun to play, especially when you combine all three
+ MIDI input makes these much more usable
+ Larger ribbon keyboard is easier to play
– Power supply sold separately
– No audio in
– Output still a tad noisy
– Beats: snare and PCM sounds a bit weak
– Keys: delay feedback quite tame
At this price point, you’ll be incredibly hard pressed to find another analogue synth with a built-in sequencer. Despite a few minor issues, each unit features clever design features and great sound, and if you combine all three you’ll have a riot.
Beats – 8/10
Bass – 9/10